KINGSTON, R.I. -- May 3, 2001 -- Nonviolence isnt for wimps, rather its for the courageous. Thats one of the Kingian nonviolence messages University of Rhode Island graduate student Mike Kittredge of Danbury, Conn. and five female undergraduate students have brought to the Rhode Island Training School in Cranston for the past 10 weeks.
And it appears those messages just might be hitting home. "When someone tries to egg me on, I try to avoid him," explains a young resident who prefers to be called Mister. "I just say the six principles (of nonviolence) to myself."
Another resident named Zack isnt sure how he is applying nonviolence, but he says he thinks "subconsciously its teaching me."
Mister and Zack are part of an experiment initiated by Dr. Bernard LaFayette, scholar-in-residence and director of URIs Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies, who oversees the project. LaFayette would like to see if the incarcerated students, all of whom were selected as leaders by their peers and training school staff, can not only change the atmosphere of the training school, but also change their lives. LaFayette would also like to get them interested in higher education. "This is their opportunity to lead in a different direction," says the man who was a colleague of Martin Luther King Jr.
The training school has a capacity for 179 residents ranging in age from 12 up to 21 when they are released or in rare cases transferred to the Adult Correctional Institute. The majority of the residents are male, but there is a female unit that houses around 30. Crimes range from drug possession, assault and rape, to murder. Drug related crimes, however, are the most common.
"At first, the residents didnt want to respond. It wasnt macho or cool, but you could see an internal interest," recalls Kittredge who managed the week-to-week training as his masters in college student personnel project. "Then the barriers came down."
Twenty residents, all volunteers, began the program, eight have since been released and two have dropped out. All residents who completed the training earned a certificate in nonviolence.
"Ive never felt uncomfortable or unsafe," says Kittredge, adding that in different circumstances he is sure he could become friends with one or two of the residents. "We didnt know what crimes they had committed and we didnt want to know."
Each week, Kittredge and the six URI mentors met with their mentees. The 90-minute classes consisted of a lesson, an activity, and small group discussions. One week, the group followed the format of the game show "Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?" One of the questions asked, "Where does truth reside?" The correct answer was "in your heart." Another question asked participants to complete the phrase "Hate kills, Love ----." The correct answer was "heals."
Prosecution officer for URIs Traffic Tribunal Linda Palazzo holds a nonviolence training certificate and attended the training "When I first came and the boys found out that I was a policewoman, they wanted to know why I was there and not off writing tickets. I told them it was my day off and I wanted to help. Since then, I missed one day and Im told one of the boys sulked because I wasnt there."
Seeking a diverse group of URI mentors, Kittredge went to the Latin American Student Organization and asked for volunteers. Ivette Luna, management information systems major, raised her hand. Born in the Dominican Republic, Luna is bilingual. Other mentors were Claudette Bannerman, Carol Arcinegas, Jen Wheatley, and Shannon Finneran. The mentors earned internship credit from URIs Center for Student Involvement whose director, Christine Wilson, provided the inmates with a lesson in nonviolent activism.
Mentor Finneran summed up her experience with this hope: "The best thing would be if they wouldnt come back to the Training School."
Kittredge plans two follow-ups this summer and one next fall to see how the participants are doing. "Only time will tell," says the grad student. "The training went very well. However, the residents are still a little rough around the edges and would truly benefit from an extended course."
For Information: Dr. Bernard LaFayette, 401-874-2875, Mike Kittredge, 401-874-5104, Jan Sawyer, 401-874-2875